Monday, 1 September 2014
353. Hop, Skip, and a Chump (1942)
Release date: January 3, 1942.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Grasshopper / Laurel and Hardy Crows).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Cal Dalton.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: The grasshopper, "Hopalong Casserole", once again outwits his long time nemesis: consisting of a pair of Laurel and Hardy crows.
The opening sequence introducing Hopalong is well established, thanks to the witty dialogue by Michael Maltese. He establishes the character with a bit of an ego, calling him the "hoppinest, skippenist, jumpenist grasshopper in this here cornbread."
This is a great use of play-on words which Maltese would use more infamously when creating Yosemite Sam. After the grasshopper introduces himself, Maltese once again teases the censors, with forth-wall material, such as the grasshopper turning from the audience and spitting no the censors cannot see.
The grasshopper there more explains, "Expectorating is censored, ya know". It's a great, charming little line-up from Maltese who makes the grasshopper appear much more humour. Thus, it also emphasises how much cartoons have changed since the Pre-Code days, where characters would spit out tobacco juice. Though, it had been used several times in the Production Code, it was still frowned upon. Maltese also establishes the grasshopper with a more human personality, making him very interactive with the audience with the use of forth-wall gags, such the camera trucking in closer, when he calls for the audience's attention. Then, he goes into a bit of exposition about the birds watching him: "The jerks have been trying to catch me for years. But I'm too fast for 'em. I just think I'll have a lil' fun with 'em".
As the sequence establishes the two crows: it's evident on how their personalities are, for the characters are satirising the Laurel and Hardy characters, with Laurel being the clumsy character, and Hardy being the schemer.
The Laurel crow stands behind the tree looking out for the grasshopper. Hopalong stands behind him casually. The Laurel bird turns towards him as he speaks in a cretinous, slow voice: "We're going to catch a grass-hopper". Hopalong, who has the Laurel crow on the gag, responds "Yeah?". Believing foolishly he has caught the grasshopper he hits the Hardy bird who he mistakened as Hopalong. Removing the club off the Laurel crow's hands and looking at him sternly, he speaks to him directly: "That - was a grasshopper!".
To his ignorance and failure, what he managed to capture was an angry bee who is revealed inside the bag. Afraid, they both make a run for as they are getting stung by a bee, who in the long-shot scenes can't be seen stinging the crows. As they jump inside the water, the bee arrives at the moment but signals a "darn it" motion with his arm and flies off.
Believing the coast is clear, they raise their heads from underwater but find they are still in danger from the angry bee who finds them, and stops at nothing to get justice. The Hardy bird gets stung once more by the bee and ducks under.
The Laurel bird displays his ignorance by raising his head up: showing no indication of alertness. He gets stung once more by the bee. A great gag of the bee feeling fatigued from a hard hit on the Laurel crow's head, emphasising his "bonehead" structure. Some pretty decent effects animation and timing on the stinging effect. The socket effect to emphasise the sting is effective, and comical and overall the sequence is somewhat amusing: particularly the little to no effect the Laurel crow has when the bee dive-bombs his head.
Speaking of Freleng's timing: here I will talk briefly of some pieces of timing that sticks out well in his style as well as the cartoon itself. It's not just Friz's timing that has a punchy and appealing feel to it, but he also appears to be attempting to explore different aspects of it: either comical, subtle or other aspects--which is a rare skill to have as a director.
A great scene that come to mind would be the opening shot. Already, the audience are engaged of a scene with the grasshopper hopping. To make the hopping somewhat effective and motivating: the camera hops to the movement of Hopalong.
Then it turns to a gag, involving a faster pace to the camera, faster timing as well as Carl Stalling to make the gag work. Hopalong hops in sync to a popular song of its time: Organ Grinder's Swing.
Another great piece of timing with the geniuses of Freleng and Carl Stalling combined would occur in the scene of the Hardy crow attempting to hop like the grasshopper in hopes of catching him. The scene takes place right after the lake episode, featuring the bee. The timing of the sequence is very punchy, and the music captures the frustration the crow is feeling in his hopes of capturing Hopalong. This leads him to a junkyard, where once again: this leads to another of Hopalong's victories.
The hopping action continues when they both cross to the edge of a cliff. Hopalong manages to escape back to the edge safely, whilst the Hardy crow falls, we hear no crash but another spring effect to show he is rising upwards. Just his luck, Hopalong removes the springs off the crow, leading him to fall once more. Once again another victory for the grasshopper, it's a great little scene to make the sequence edgier than the previous ones: and plus, a caution to Hopalong's egotistical remarks earlier in the short.
The Hardy crow entices the grasshopper with a piece of corn hanging from a stick, but Hopalong fails to catch the corn: leading to a sequence where the grasshopper is on top of the piano trying to catch the corn whilst playing the Poet and Peasant Overture.
It's a popular piece of music for animated cartoons, especially in action and climatical scenes, and here it works wonderfully as a gag. Inside the piano shows the Laurel and Hardy crows being beaten up by the piano felts, and pounding them in rhythm to the overture. It's a great little sequence which expresses Freleng and Stalling's abilities in creating great cartoon comedy. This ends as the grasshopper bounces on the piano, leaving the crows to fall out from the piano.
The following round, Hopalong finds he is face-to-face with the crow: but escapes from the clock with luck. Leading to a brief chase scene of the crows failing to catch Hopalong; he makes it out in time just as the cartoon irises out. Another great plot device by Maltese, who is seen breaking the rules of what would appear in animate cartoons.
He escapes through the iris, panting and wheezing, "Well, just as I was telling you folks, I'm too fast for 'em. They'll never catch me. Never". But, his remark contradicts otherwise as the Hardy bird opens up the iris-out and grabs the grasshopper's turtleneck taking him back to the cartoon to his fate. A sadistic gag yes, but also an unpredictable, funny sendoff to contradict Hopalong's line. Not to mention, it ends with the moral, for its unwise to be overconfident and brash: thus ending with what the grasshopper deserved.
From writing in the cat-mouse formula, Mike Maltese does a decent effort in turning out this short. The grasshopper is a very big-heated, self-centred character that Maltese manages to make the character unlikable throughout the entire cartoons, thus ending him with good justice. The use of forth-wall material makes the characters appear believable and human from their interactions, and all the characters show three-dimensional personalities. From a viewer's perspective, the short shows some great character development. Freleng's timing is also fun and inventive in the cartoon; with the cliched 'Poet and Peasant Overture' sequence being witty and humorous. Overall, its got some great sequences, great characters that add up to a great cartoon. A very underrated Freleng effort.